Wrong Bill At The Wrong Time

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Even if Democrats extract the votes to put ObamaCare over the top, it will at best be a Pyrrhic victory for them. Regardless of the outcome, this monstrosity might cost the Democrats the Congress this November, ruin the party for a long time and prematurely render Barack Obama a lame duck president for the rest of his term.

So why didn’t the Democrats pull back when they still had the chance? The reason is that both the Democratic Party and President Obama have mutually reinforcing blind spots that have rendered them incapable of seeing what’s crystal clear to every other sentient being in the country: This was the wrong bill at the wrong time.


The only comic relief in the otherwise grim, yearlong ObamaCare saga has been the spectacle of progressive pundits scratching their heads to explain the bill’s nose-diving popularity: Betsy McCaughey is a lying bitch whose chatter about death panels has spooked Americans; the bill is too tame for Americans who really want a public option; Democrats are just too damn nice to engage in the gutter partisan politics necessary to push their agenda through; Republicans are nay-saying obstructionists; and, my personal favorite, President Obama, arguably the most gifted orator alive, does not have the communication skills necessary to sell this bill (of goods).

In fact, the real reason why ObamaCare is so unpopular is that it is proposing a giant expansion of the entitlement state precisely when this state everywhere is coming apart: here and abroad; at the federal level and the state; in the public sector and the private. Suggesting a giant government takeover of a sixth of the economy can’t be a popular selling point in a country whose DNA has a programmed hostility to Big Government.

Even before President Obama rammed through his trillion-dollar-plus stimulus/bailout packages last year, there was a growing sentiment that the country’s top priority ought to be tackling the entitlement programs whose liabilities are like a swelling aneurysm in the brain of the body politic waiting to rupture. The combined unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security–the federal health care and the pension programs for the elderly–are $107 trillion, seven times the current GDP. Meanwhile, Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program, is consuming on average 21% of state budgets, their single biggest ticket item even before ObamaCare dumps another 16 million people into the program, expanding the Medicaid population by 25%. Beyond that, state and local government have promised their employees a trillion dollars more in pension and other benefits than they have funds to deliver.

There are not enough taxpayers in the country or creditors in China capable of financing all these promises. Expanding this massive, multifarious entitlement state even more strikes most normal people as sheer lunacy–especially now that it is visibly coming apart at the seams.

General Motors and Chrysler–the corporate version of the public welfare state in which unions had negotiated the best wage and pension deals in the free world–have already been forced into a taxpayer-financed bankruptcy. California, America’s most European state, is technically bankrupt, thanks to the ubiquitous influence on the state budget of its public unions and its entitlement spending. Meanwhile, the deficits and debt of the so-called European PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain)–the social democracies whose cradle-to-grave welfare policies are the inspiration behind ObamaCare–are on the brink of bankruptcy. Greece, the most vulnerable of the lot, has a deficit of 12.7% of the GDP–not that much higher than America’s 10.6 %.

Pushing ObamaCare was an astonishing misjudgment, the domestic policy equivalent of President Bush launching a full-scale preemptive strike against Iran after embroiling the country in Iraq and Afghanistan. But why don’t progressives get that this is terrible economic timing? Because this is the moment they have been waiting for since Lyndon Johnson enacted Medicare. Never mind that the economy then, unlike now, was booming. What matters is they have in the White House as sympathetic a president as they can ever hope to get–combined with sizable margins of Democrats in both chambers. Republicans, moreover, have been thoroughly discredited on both foreign and domestic policy having presided over two unpopular wars and a financial meltdown of epic proportions. In short, the political stars have never been–and likely never will be–aligned more auspiciously in the progressives’ lifetime, and they will be damned if they’ll allow quotidian worries about the economy or anything else to stop them. It is now or never.

There is no tactic too low to deploy–and no cause too sacred to abandon. If Americans are unenthused about universal coverage, screw ’em. If it is necessary to use reconciliation–meant strictly for budgetary matters–to ram the bill through Congress on a strictly partisan vote, then so be it. If filibuster rules that Democrats themselves restored in 1975 are now coming in the way, get rid of them.

The prize for the most bizzaro accusation, however, goes to Katha Pollitt of The Nation who blamed ObamaCare’s woes on the two-senators-per-state rule that she alleged the Founding Fathers had enshrined in the Constitution as a sop to slave states, thereby diluting the voice of populous multiethnic powerhouses such as New York and California. But this fundamental principle of our bicameral constitution had nothing to do with slavery, a fact she was forced to finally admit. It was meant to give the underdogs of the day–rural, relatively powerless states–constitutional parity, a concern that one would have thought progressives would applaud.

But egged on by the progressive punditocracy, Democrats are behaving as if, once they jam ObamaCare through, nothing else matters. It’s like they’ll never have to worry about being the minority party in need of constitutional checks and balances.

A sensible president would of course step in and provide some adult supervision to a wayward party hell-bent on jumping off this cliff. But the problem is that President Obama believes in his own messianism too deeply for that. His goal is not to remake his party as it could be but “remake this world as it should be.” In his book Dreams From My Father Obama gives the distinct impression that his gifts are too great for the smallness of our political stage. He regrets not having been born during the civil rights era when the grandness of the cause would have measured up to the grandness of his ambition. He is in search of something big that will allow him to make his mark on the world as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King did. Hence, the defeat of ObamaCare would not just be par for the course in the rough-and-tumble world of politics for him. It would be sign of his ordinariness, his mortality, and that, to him, is unendurable.

But the rub is that even if ObamaCare passes, Democrats and President Obama will lose. Republicans have already vowed to make November a referendum on this bill and, by all auguries, Democrats are going to lose big time. The loss of one election if the larger cause succeeds wouldn’t be a big deal. But this bill has little legitimacy and for years might be tied up in constitutional challenges against its individual mandate provision–not to mention the provisions that turn insurance companies into public utilities without due process. ObamaCare could well become President Obama’s Iraq. Worst of all from the standpoint of his personal life story, it will exacerbate the crisis of the entitlement state, requiring someone else to step forward and clean up the fiscal mess he is creating.

Ironically, Obama is not only sowing the seeds for the destruction of his own legacy–but also for the creation of someone else’s. Far from being the savior–he’s the one who will be in need of saving.

‘Shikha Dalmia is with Reason. She wrote this for Forbes.’
‘Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a biweekly Forbes columnist.’